There are certain aspects of life that we never seem to lose, even when the years start piling up behind us. One of these is our fascination with the natural world. Another is our innate desire to keep advancing and exploring new ground. In school, we learned the term Manifest Destiny, and in addition to the western landscape, we always seem to want to explore the limits of human ingenuity. National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey combines these two timeless aspects of our human experience.
Imagine being able to say that you saw a humpback whale swim past you in Times Square. Well, you’ll have to preface it by explaining it was a digital whale. However, with 3-D glasses, and authentic recordings echoing through the gallery located right in the theater district, one might chalk it up to global warming or just another phenomenon in the city that doesn’t sleep.
After paying the New York style ticket price of $39.50 for adults and $32.50 for children, the visitors are immersed in a video reminiscent of any National Geographic nature show introductory promo. Next, visitors are shipped off to a room where digital rays and other fish swim around actually avoiding the human feet that invades their pixel ocean.
Next, as if peering into a sub-floor aquarium, visitors can see dolphins diving down to explore the sandy depths among coral and the wealth of fish that utilize their trompe-l’oeil paradise. Later, through the use of motion sensors, visitors can stand in front of their own “pet” seal, in a likewise underwater aquarium window, and train it to turn, dive, flip, and peer curiously into the fourth wall.
The room of bio-luminescence transports the visitor to the world of the coral reef at night, or some fairy tale dream where new age music accompanies the undulating mermaids and the gentle sway of seaweed. Here, the floor glows with every footstep, as if our avatars were leaping through the forest floor of Pandora. Despite the visual over-stimulation, there is so much to learn about the elusive world beneath us, and the Ocean Odyssey delivers answers to the questions of which we had not yet thought.
Then came the war of the giant squids. Surrounded by a continual canape of screens, the viewer feels as if he/she is eye witness to survival of the fittest, humbled by the violence and enamored of the technology. Donning virtual scuba gear, the visitors stand and view the jetting of the squids as if trying to follow the movement of a racquetball. The lesson here is that we are small in the presence of ancient creatures, adapted to survive the millennia, yet every line of code is mans’.
The final rooms present the objective. Panels with facts and video presentations provided the answers to the scavenger hunt handout the younger visitors are given. With parents along as lifelines, the young explorers make their way to the finish line, an interactive gallery whose message is conservation and environmental protection. The juxtaposition of touch screen computers and coloring books with crayons remind us that as we swim into the 21st century, there is always the undertow of simple truths: we will always be curious, the environment will always need protecting, and there is always hope for renewal.
With the rise of social media and influencers has come the editorial rush to use "locals" for travel reporting.
In the old days (even as long ago as five to ten years ago), career travel journalists would be sent on assignment to places around the world to come back with good, solid reporting on what people would want to know if they went to Bora Bora, or Venice, or Milwaukee.
Today, editors want correspondents who live in in the places they write about--"local" experts.
I sometimes find that this rush to exclude professional reporters who are travelers from reporting on travel to places they don't live in, to be problematic at best and boring and uninformative at worst.
I recently read a piece on Venice by a "local" expert whose choices for "must dos" were every single major tourist trap on everyone's bucket list. There were no secrets revealed, no essence shared.
I also recently read a brilliantly evocative piece on a small Spanish city, written by a reporter colleague who had traveled there and was a stranger in town--using all his facilities of sensitivity to color, taste, contour of experience to shape it for similar travelers who would take the same trip.
So when editors insist that they can only take pieces by writers who live in the town or village or hamlet they are writing about it makes me sad for the wasted stories written by curious souls who live to open themselves up to "otherness" and share it with the world.
I'm a member of a Facebook group called "Women Who Travel" and one of the questions that gets asked most frequently is about fear.
"I'm going to Europe for the first time alone and I'm feeling scared."
"I'm thinking of going to Morocco, but I'm frightened that I'll have problems as a woman alone."
"I'm on a trip and getting into a relationship with a local and it's making me jittery."
There are so many reasons why fear is a traditional traveling companion for women. There are the real and non-negotiable fears for safety that we have to deal with realistically. There are fears of going beyond your comfort zone that men and women share equally. Then there are the fears that you won't be strong, smart, savvy or stylish enough to make your dreams come true in reality...to take your dream journey off your vision board and make it come true.
After traveling to over 80 countries in the past ten years as a travel journalist, I have one paramount fear. The fear of NOT flying, of not going on the adventure, the fear of staying home.
That old chestnut saying about you never regret the things you did only the things you might have done has a hard kernel of truth inside it. I still remember and regret the time I plead a stomach flu to avoid going on my first camping trip. What I don't regret is the time I got picked for a student trip to Switzerland and Spain at 13 and flew to Zurich alone on a 747 (yes, one of those old-school planes with LOTS of leg room).
That trip came back to me recently when I found myself in Spain on a trip to Rioja. I remembered the 13-year old I was, seeing that vibrant culture for the first time. I found myself feeling the same love for the warmth and flavor of Spain--the elegance of the language and the proud and graceful way both men and women carry themselves. I don't remember any feeling of fear, just a jump of excitement in my gut and a feeling like I was looking at my presents on Christmas morning. So much to discover.
My fears of not flying, of adventuring, are probably based on the fact that I had a hard home life as a kid. Home never felt like a great place to be. It was when I stepped out of my small world into the world at large, at 13, that I found myself at home for the first time.
So the idea of never feeling that up-catch of breath you get upon take-off again, or of not breathing in the particular smell of the air of an entirely foreign place again is what really puts fear into my heart.
Troubles and challenges on the road are part of the adventure. We may have natural fears around new surroundings that make us more aware and agile. The dragging, soul-chilling fear of never having lived is different. That's the fear I dread and have done the best to avoid ever since that first trip.
I've traveled to over 80 countries at this point, but one aspect of journeying remains constant: the part where I'm in the bathroom with soap in my eyes and shampoo in my hair, and can't figure out for the life of me what that f-ing fixture I have in my slippery, wet hands does, and how to make it do it.
Does that long, metal spigot function as a hot/cold regulator, or will it send a shower of needle-like massage jets down on my back?
In some countries I've mistakenly turned the knob toward "C" thinking "Cold" only to realize after a scalding river of water hits me that it meant caldo for hot.
Hotel bathrooms never come with instructions, and that's the one thing they need.
Just a little friendly advice - "Hey buddy, don't touch this unless you want to unleash a waterfall of water on your unsuspecting head," or "Turn this to the right to the everlasting peril of your flesh."
In the meantime, I've perfected a routine. I gingerly approach the appliances fully clothed at first, turning the knobs gently to see what happens (a technique not unlike that of a tentative lover).
So far, I've come away relatively unscathed.
But I'm almost positive there's a hotel bathroom in my future that will challenge even my practiced hand at "what the hell is this for" groping. -- Gretchen Kelly
We know New Yorkers love their bagels...but do they love them this much?
The Westin Times Square is offering a gold-flecked, Alba truffle cream cheese and goji berry bagel for $1,000.
The bagel can be scarfed down (with a hot cup of way less expensive coffee) at the hotel's Foundry Kitchen at breakfast time or in your room 24-hours a day (you have to give the kitchen a day's notice to create one).
Least you fear incurring the wrath of friends and foes on Facebook who will accuse you of Marie Antoinetting, you can tell your social mediasphere that all the proceeds of your gold-fingered food will go to the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen.
The real gold encrusted $1,000 bagel is a limited offer from November 1 to December 15th.
First, I am a poet. Second, I am a travel journalist. But like nature itself, the two live within my personal ecosystem in a delicate balance. For instance, two weeks ago, I drove to the Catskills with my business partner, Gretchen Kelly, so that we could experience, and later write about, the amenities and accommodations of the Emerson Spa. However, as I was examining the overall ambiance and evaluating the level of service, I could not escape the truth that all around me was a rich, literary history. Here, Washington Irving penned Rip Van Winkle in 1819, and within this bucolic setting, two H.P. Lovecraft stories take place with their own mysterious nature.
Perhaps it was the quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson that decked the walls of the Spa in various locations, and set my mind down its usual productive pathway. For that is my process; the poem proceeds my understanding of it, and I become part poet, part listener. Something drew me to the balcony outside my spacious room, and it was that same something that placed the first words on the blank page of my journal. Something told me to bring that along, as well.
Seeing the Catskills Beyond my Sight
If it were not for my eyes,
this Catskill Mountain landscape
would rely on the symphony of sound,
a catbird crying to mother air,
cicadas strumming their washboard thighs,
a distant mower, man-made thunder
shouldering its waves past all other sounds.
Without eyes, touch would endure –
Emerson Spa, as textural as the honeybee
finding space between the slats of wood
on a porch of treated lumber.
There are times I wish I could find a space
between the slats of all my days awake,
feeling the trembling stress points
of the life to which I must return.
For now, tall grasses caress what’s left of me,
transcendentalist scrapbook moments,
the pinhead insect feet that land on me,
air so light I swear I wear nothing.
With eyes closed
I smell the hickory smoke of nightfall,
a bonfire, the embers of friendship;
We will know each other
for only a few more hours.
I will be the one you think of
when recalling those bright green trees
or the syncope of a bluejay
flashing its colors like a fan under the sun,
the paperwasps strolling along the porch railing
or the white noise of your halcyon days
in a small town near Woodstock.
- Michael Alpiner
The Hottest Travel Destinations
Each week on our Instagram page, we will profile another of our hottest travel destinations.
Please follow us on Instagram as we post our WANDER-LIST slideshow for each of our profiled destinations.
This week, we present – PORTUGAL
Also, extremeluxurygetaways.com is announcing the WANDER-LIST sweepstakes!
The rules are simple:
3. Comment on any of our WANDER-LIST slideshows that we post for that month with a five word phrase that tells us how you define luxury. (responses must be five words, be appropriate, and can be depict a concrete or abstract experience – visit our website to read our perspective on luxury).
The last time I visited Rye Playland, Jimmy Carter was our president - makes one dream of the good old days, huh? Certainly, my life was easier then. I had come to Rye on a school trip (remember when school trips were meant to be fun?), and I recall it now like a scene from a movie, dropping quarters (or was it dimes?) into pinball machines, wearing socks with colored stripes, using exclamations like "dynamite"and "says you," and hearing on a distant radio the song All You Need is Love.
Flash forward forty years. The pinball machines have been replaced by virtual reality, the socks are monochromatic, expletives usurped exclamations, and yet I can still hear All You Need is Love on the Rye Playland boardwalk (is it real or just wishful thinking?).
At Pier Restaurant & Tiki Bar, a Beatles tribute band called the Sun Kings honored the Fab Four throughout the evening, and May Pang, former girlfriend of John Lennon, spoke to the dinner crowd about her life with John. The short talk was followed by a lengthy Q & A in which her many invited guests had the opportunity to quell their curiosity about those grand and tumultuous years.
We spoke to May over a Mexican dinner about a month earlier, yet no story she told at the Pier Restaurant& Tiki Bar was a repeat of what we heard over hot enchiladas and icy margaritas. Her tales portrayed John in the way we wished we could have always seen him - healthy, productive, and safe. The questions from the audience focused more on the types of music and food John enjoyed rather than the controversy and tragedy.
May was candid and happy. The evening was beautiful, as the sun set over the mouth of the Sound, and the lights along the boardwalk ricocheted me back to those simpler times.
- Michael Alpiner
Helen Keller once wrote, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad.” In the spring of 2000, as I was being treated at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City for a recurrence of stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the body’s lymph system, I was faced with my own set of limitations. Besides the feeling that my time on Earth might be limited, I was physically restricted by extreme lethargy, a by-product of my chemotherapy regimen. I was also emotionally burdened by the effect the illness had on my employment, relationships, self-esteem, and future goals. Perseverance was not enough at that time; I needed a hobby.
Any hobby I chose would have to be high interest and low impact, subdued enough to allow for my lack of stamina, yet engaging enough to matter to me at a time when other issues loomed larger. My mother-in-law, the quintessential problem-solver, presented me with a pair of binoculars and a birdwatcher’s guidebook. Here was a hobby I could do as I walked at my maximum speed of sluggish through the parks of Queens.
I began with the convalescent limitations of my bedroom window. From there, I was able to check off positive identifications of sparrows, cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, and starlings. The occasional chickadee or titmouse might pass my gaze as well, bringing the total number of species to seven, a lucky number. Once my stamina improved, I found Kissena Park an impressive locale for birdwatching. I added coot, ruddy duck, cormorant, brown creeper, and pheasant to my list. As my resilience grew and as I completed my chemo treatments, I found I was able to walk the two-mile circumference of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, one of the crown jewels of birding. After multiple trips, my identification checklist skyrocketed well beyond fifty species. From there, my health and fitness took me to Upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and, by 2005, to being labeled “cured.”
In 2007, I was among a select few writers accepted into the new MFA in Creative Writing Program at Queens College. My thesis was a poetry collection called “Flying on the Edge,” which combined poems about my successful battle against Hodgkin’s disease with poems that embodied the spirituality of birds and how they followed me through the process of recovery, stripping away my limitations as my health took flight.
-- Michael Alpiner
The Luxury of Game of Thrones: A Trip Around the Westeros World and an Island Waiting for HBO to Discover
My journeys to the worlds of Westeros have included Iceland (The Wall), Northern Ireland (Winterfell), and Croatia (King's Landing).
In each world that stood in for the imaginary kingdoms of George R. R. Martin, I found a unique history and art and culture that sometimes mirrored and sometimes was in distinct contrast to the worlds that you see on film.
Take the famous "Shadow Baby" caves (their real name is Cushendun) just outside of Belfast. In GOT, they are the site of a horrific and visceral "birth" of the shadow child of Melisandre. In reality, the caves are a place of peace and lapping ocean water, near small towns, friendly pubs and the legendary green fields of the Northern Irish countryside.
In Iceland, pristine glaciers and ice flows are CG'd into the foreboding "Wall" where Jon Snow and crew have their watch. In reality, the air is bracing and pure and friendly locals have nary a white walker among them (although the Icelanders on the whole believe in an elder race of "unseen" folk).
Perhaps one of the most surprising destinations I visited on my Westeros tours was Croatia. I've been to Dubrovnik (site of Cersei's "walk of shame") and to Split (where the palace of Diocletian doubles as Denarys' throne room). On my last trip to this country of a myriad islands I visited Losinj--which has not yet made it onto the screen as Dorne or Kings' Landing but in my opinion it's just a matter of time. In the days of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the island was the Emperor's getaway for chilling with his mistress far from the prying eyes of the Viennese. It was also considered a health resort where people could get the soot from the urban sprawll out of their lungs.
The island is full of pines and rare flowers and herbs that release their scent into the remarkably clean air. The water is so crystalline, you can see sea life and your own feet at the bottom.
History lovers will find the tracks of ancient roman wheels, and there's a booty of of a found masterpiece from ancient Greece in a local museum--Apoxymenos--an athlete whose beauty of form would rival any of the young studs of GOT.
It's only a matter of time before the location managers of HBO find Losinj and turn it into some new conquered city-state or one of the contested lands in the battle between Jon Snow, Arya, Denarys, Cersei, et al.
GOT fans--go now!